Opinion: Six lessons for creating believable female characters

I was excited when I heard about (spooky ghost game) Gone Home mostly because I knew it had Heavens to Betsy in the soundtrack somewhere and I love riot grrrl bands. There's something special about games that shout-out something you love; games that have a similar personality to you.

[Here's that mandatory Gone Home spoiler warning]

Five minutes in, and I knew this game had my number. You play Katie, just arrived home from a gap year abroad. At an empty, dark, creepy old mansion on top of the hill. After midnight. In a raging storm. Where's the fams?

Katie pretends to be Dana Scully (at least my Katie does, in my head) as she tentatively begins to search the shadows for her mum, dad, and teen sister, Sam. Especially Sam. Left behind are letters, journal entries, notes and objects. Clues to where they are, to who they are.

Things resonated. Gone Home isn't an in-joke, but for a game set in the 90s, it totally embodies that 90s valley-girl expression "That's soooo...." The 90s are soooo 90s, the possibly-haunted house soooo eerie, Christmas decorations soooo corny, the videotapes are soooo bumpy on the underside, the magazines are soooo early digital graphic design, the women are soooo ... like actual real women? Wait what? That's soooo ... awesome.

Katie pretends to be Dana Scully (at least my Katie does)

In a way, I'm not surprised. Gone Home is a game that's thematically and mechanically about understanding — how people seek it, arrive at it, and find it. Or don't. By making it necessary to invest in every character's story to get a full picture of what's happened, Gone Home's gameplay suggests that it takes many perspectives to really understand reality.

In Gone Home, everything reveals something about its creator, something about what its creator has seen and/or something about who this thing was intended for. That's all art, in a way. Games, stories, art in general are methods humans use to tell each other what their lives are like. If we only play games by/for/about one group, we end up knowing far more about them, their desires, hopes, fears, likes, fantasies, experiences and far less about anyone else. (Multiply that by the thousands of stories you're exposed to in your lifetime.)

Right now, if a Kerbal (a space alien for the non-PC folks) came to earth, they'd have a lot more material at their disposal for getting a sense of the varied experiences of men than women. That's unfair to women, obviously, but it's also unfair to men: understanding women somewhat is useful, considering they're all over the place. Understanding humans, in general, takes practice and experience, or at least second-hand experience.

What do women want and what are they thinking and what do they like is a much easier question to answer if you're familiar with women, women's stories and well-written women characters. (Including those written by men. Joss Whedon does a lot of justice to women's experiences.)

We need all stories. Everybody deserves to feel understood. Just like we cherish games that speak to us, every gamer deserves the chance to play someone like them, and walk in all sorts of other people's shoes. It's gaming's superpower.

If games let us try on different lives, they have a responsibility to get those lives right. There are lots of games I've liked recently for improving the portrayal of women: The Walking Dead, Bioshock Infinite, Kentucky Route Zero, Tomb Raider (2013). They were good, but most had issues. Gone Home, as a game about the value of understanding, ends up being a game that strives to understand people who are rarely well understood by games. It gets women right.

Halloween_show

So, in case of future Kerbal invasion, here are six lessons about creating great female characters that gaming culture could learn and apply to future games:

First, it has women characters! Main ones! Minor ones! They're everywhere! That's a good start. Not every game even gets one. They're all different kinds of women too, not just different hair colors. None of the major characters could be simply interchanged with any other video game character without totally messing up the game.

Second, it doesn't make them sex objects! Even though it portrays all sorts of women, bodies, sexualities and states of undress: famous women, unknown women, women rockers, riot grrrls, reverend's wives, lesbian women, principals, young girls, sexy nekkid ladies. Sexuality isn't erased here, it informs the characters and the way they behave; the game just doesn't offer it up for the players' consumption. The game contains other media that does objectify women, but doesn't depict it in a particularly objectifying way: no ogling camera angles, stylized body animation, impractical emphasising clothing that adds nothing to the characterization etc. In short, avoiding objectification is about the way bodies are presented, not the bodies themselves.

The eyes you look through are curious, but not leering. For a game about searching through people's stuff, it's not encouraging you to be creepy.

Third, it doesn't make them any other kind of object either. Yes, you're searching to find (and possibly rescue?) other characters, but they're not plot devices or fetch quests. Games that just whisk female characters away in order to be saved (what Anita Sarkeesian calls "Damselling") simultaneously remove their personality and agency from the plot, turning the woman into a trophy and denying the player any opportunity to grow attached to the damsel as a person. (Journey does a better job getting the player emotionally attached to a mountain than many games do for damselled women.)

Gone Home does the opposite. Women aren't discovered after the quest, but throughout it (Bioshock Infinite does something similar by making Elizabeth your companion, not goal). Your search becomes the opportunity to delve into the inner lives of your family, especially your sister's. Every aspect of this game is about knowing things in depth, about respecting things that aren't you. Its main mechanic is picking things up and gently turning them over to examine every side. It even has a whole mechanic for putting them back carefully! Gone Home isn't a game about mostly questing followed by a quick denouement, ‘Hero's Journey' style. It's a game about constantly finding, and what happens after finding things: reflecting. And there has to be something worth finding.

X_files_tapes

So fourth, it gives women a voice and influence over the story. Where "damsel" quests portray women as mostly ineffectual on their own, Gone Home emphasizes their humanity and independence by making it clear they have stories outside of being just adjuncts to your life. As you turn over notes, books and letters, a lot of what you find are the Tarantino-like conversations that women really have but rarely find their way onto screen: people just shooting the breeze, sharing humor or musings. (A+ on the Bechdel Test!) I don't think the question of women's characterization is weak vs. strong per se, but a question of agency. None of the women in Gone Home are "brazen butt-kickin' babes," but women's motivations and actions drive the plot, they're not driven by it.

Whether a damsel or "strong woman," many female characters tend to suffer from the same problem — very little empathy or understanding about how they came to be what they are, except, "duh, women are like that." But here, there's evidence the women have dreams, hobbies, talents, preferences, opinions and actions. Thus Gone Home takes familiar characters — the sullen teenager, the cool friend, the bored wife, the frustrated writer — and fleshes them out into individuals. Like any sullen teenager, you can hear Sam's eyes rolling, but at the same time you can hear their particular trajectory.

However, making characters interesting and deep alone doesn't always protect a game from stereotypes. The writers of Bioshock Infinite managed to make Daisy Fitzroy a great character, something akin to Edmund from King Lear, but the way that character fed into damaging stereotypes about black women and conflicted with the history of how actual black women's activism happened made the whole portrayal wrong. Getting it right requires that game writers know what stereotypes they're up against and actively think about the effect of traditional storytelling devices. The fact that unexamined cliches may sprout naturally from a writer's subconscious when they first sit down to write a dazzling epic of unimaginable artistic purity doesn't make it less of a lazy trope.

So fifth, Gone Home tackles major stereotypes about women. My personal fave was how the game countered the idea women aren't funny by filling the game with the kind of humor women use a lot (goofy playfulness) but is often undervalued because it isn't stage-ready.

But probably the most important and pernicious stereotype the game subverts is the idea that women don't do things out of logic or personal reasons or normal reasonable human desires, but for scheming woman reasons (or for a little variety, ‘silly woman reasons'). Tons of female tropes reinforce this idea in their own ways, e.g. The seductress who uses sex to achieve evil (male womanizers tend to use evil to achieve sex, which seems much more logical IMHO) or the damsel who likes the hero out of gratitude or admiration, not similar personalities. (This is what I like about Cortana/Chief's relationship — they seem to mostly like each other because they're similar, adventurous people, and the admiration is mutual.)

Gone_home

Because Gone Home portrays multiple women, the game is able to step away from having one character stand in for "the ideal female character." Instead of some kind of universal "woman illogic," it endorses the idea that in 3.75 billion women there's probably a huge diversity of attitudes, tastes and approaches. Sam isn't sullen because "teenagers are sullen" or women are killjoys, but because the dynamics of high school are particularly constraining and punishing for the kind of person she wants to be. In Gone Home, all the evidence — their own words as shown in letters, but also the evidence around the house that verifies the women's characterization of their own lives — shows female characters making choices (within their options considering the expectations and circumstances around them) for very human, self-consistent reasons, including having their own agency and sexual desires. Not always perfectly moral reasons, or smart reasons, but sympathetic ones. (It's not like Pollyanna is the ideal feminist portrayal of women.) For a game that harkens back to Agatha Christie and The X-Files, it understands the value of a really satisfying explanation. That's something flimsy tropes could never provide.

And finally sixth, the women are still women. Not women in a "women doing women things for reasons that reinforce gender stereotypes" sense, but in a "women doing all sorts of things (including women things) for reasons consistent with what a person, given those individual qualities growing up in a culture that has particular expectations of and opinions on women, would do." The hair dye, the nail polish, the riot grrrl, the costumes are all understood in very human terms of humans expressing themselves through the means that are most culturally available to them, not "women are vain" or "lady art is craft and therefore frivolous."

Gone Home hasn't erased gender from its female characters in a misguided attempt to avoid stereotypes. It just, y'know ... avoided stereotypes. These women haven't transcended their gender, that unlike those other silly ladies, they're so cool they're unconstrained by the pressures of gender conformity. That's still sexist, because it's essentially "Screw most women for bowing to pressure. They're lesser" or "Women's things are petty and superior women grow out of them (and act like men)." It's just substituting one set of expectations on women (be feminine) for another (reject all femininity). Gone Home does a really good job of sympathizing with why women sometimes do things that fit with cultural stereotypes — sometimes those things are rewarding in and of themselves (make-up and shoes can be wonderful things, as many a 17th century rich dude would attest), but mostly because rebelling comes with a pretty high cost.

And that's kind of it. Have women, don't make them sex objects or plot devices, give the player a way to get to know them, give them a mind full of thought and opinions and history and likes and dislikes to know, give them agency in the plot, investigate tropes and be careful to avoid them, don't erase their gender.

It seems so simple when you break it down, when you see it so masterfully achieved in a game like this. We can do it! We can fix the portrayal of women without breaking games forever!

Everybody deserves to feel understood

Yes we can, if we choose to. But it might so happen that writing women well isn't something that's easy to do off the top of your head. (Same for writing anything well!) Gone Home is able to represent women well because The Fullbright Company seems to have done its research and worked hard to. Fighting stereotypes takes effort and better representations won't happen on their own. (Even Lara Croft was a deliberate choice to make a female character after character designer Toby Gard started making a male one, not a sudden wind of inspiration.)

No game pops out of a creator's head like perfectly done toast, ready to eat/play. Characters and games are always built out of thousands of design decisions, and I don't see why some of those shouldn't be "Does this do a disservice to these people?" Yes, don't worry about offending people. Do worry about hurting people and misrepresenting them. Making art isn't a visa into screw-your-fellow-human-beings-land. As a grad architect, I don't get to build buildings that fall on people just because it's the perfect expression of my architectural self. Art is just an idea and a way of expressing it, and sexism is a shit idea and it will make your art stink. Portraying women (or anyone) fairly is just part of the larger responsibility everyone has in life to be considerate.

Any gamer who's ever really loved a game can understand how important both games that resonate and games that take us out of our comfort zone are, and thus how important a diversity of stories are to games culture as it is and the kind of games community we raise. In its way, Gone Home is about that. You can't know what's happened until you've pieced together everyone's stories. We can't know ourselves, this world we're in, until the stories we tell include everyone.

Claire Hosking is a grad architect and illustrator interested in digital architecture, procedural art, robots and feminism. In her spare time she models and programs gameish things and plays the ukulele. Visit her website, clairehosking.tumblr.com, or follow her on Twitter, @hoskingc.

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